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We pulled up in front of the house on Hegg Avenue, in Madison, Wisconsin. A man was mowing the front lawn. I walked up to him and asked, “Hi, would you mind if I took a picture of your house?” Caught off guard by such a strange request, he questioned, “What for?” “I used to live here, years ago.” I explained, “I too have mowed this lawn many times.” I continued, “There used to be a white board fence around this flower bed. I hated mowing around that.”
“So you lived here, eh?” He said, “Yes.” I went on, “Under your front porch is a fruit cellar, the concrete slab of the porch makes the ceiling.” He smiled, “Are you part of the big family that lived here?” “Yes, I am,” I started to tell him the layout of his home. He interrupted, “Would you like to come in and see the house?” I finally took a breath, “Yes, I really would.”
I introduced myself and Fred began to walk me down the driveway. “We’re getting ready for company, so it will have to be a fast tour.” He said. I met his wife and daughter who were also working, getting ready to host guests.
There is a parking area in front of the garage that kind of wraps around the house, leading to the backyard and back door. I stood and looked in the garage. The garage. Oh the memories I have of that special place!
It’s a square building with a medium pitched roof. Inside, to the left, is an open staircase that goes up to an attic. Most people would use that area for storage I suppose, but it was our secret clubhouse when I was little.
On the right front side there is a recess for the walk door. The roofline provides protection over this entry, an area that creates an alcove inside the garage. It was a good area for a work bench, or to store your lawn mower. It wouldn’t fit a full size car but when it was our garage, it’s where we parked my Opel. I loved that car.
It was a 1968, dark blue Opel Kadett, two door station wagon - a German import sold by Buick. It had a grey leather interior (actually it was vinyl, but calling it leather sounds more impressive) It was a four cylinder, four speed manual transmission. It had no bells or whistles. The front side windows went up and down by a hand crank, the backseat wing windows were also manual. It didn’t have air conditioning, so I went cruising down the roads with the window open and my arm resting on the door, while the wind blew through the car, keeping me cool.
There was no power steering or power brakes, but honestly, the Opel was so lightweight it didn’t need them. The only two options the car had were an A.M. radio and the luggage rack on top.
The Opel was actually my parents car; one they had purchased for the teenage kids in our family to drive and share. I told Dad I was saving my lawn mowing money and I would buy the car to be my own as soon as I had enough cash.
My brothers Peter and Danny drove the car and whenever I rode with them I paid close attention to the way they worked the pedals and the shifter. From there, I taught myself how to drive a clutch in that car. I got really good at it, too. I even learned how I could use the parking brake to keep the car from rolling backwards when taking off from a stop sign atop a steep hill. I loved that car!
Sometimes, I’d load the car with my younger brothers and sisters and take them for a ride; we’d go get ice cream, go to the beach, or to the store. One time I took them to the drive-in movies. I parked the car backwards. We lifted the back hatch, stretched out and ate popcorn and drank Kool-Aid that we brought from home, while we watched the show. It was fun.
I took that car everywhere. I drove it to Saint Louis, to visit the Arch; to New York City, to see the Empire State Building, then upstate to experience the majestic Niagara Falls. I went to Colorado to climb the Rocky Mountains and Arizona to gaze down into the Grand Canyon. I drove to California - to the Redwood Forest, then down to Disneyland. I went to Florida to Cape Canaveral where all the Apollo Rockets were launched. I visited the beaches and the new Disney World while I was there. I drove to Green Bay where I cheered on the Packers at Lambeau Field; they went on to shut out the Chicago Bears 21-0. I drove to Port Washington, Wisconsin, to watch the big ships come in off Lake Michigan and unload their coal at the power plant. I went fishing for Coho salmon, off the breakwater; I caught a few monsters! I put the backseat down, took a sleeping bag and a pillow and slept many nights in the back of that car.
One time, a police officer pulled me over while I was driving the Opel. He asked for my driver’s license. When I told him I didn’t have one, he asked how far I was from home. “Not very far at all.” I told him. “Well, be careful driving home and get a driver’s license before you drive again. Okay?” I assured him I would do that, then drove home.
A few days later, he pulled me over again wanting to see my license. “I don’t have one yet.“ I told him. “Why not?” He wanted to know, “I told you to go get a driver’s license before driving again.” I explained, “When I went in to take the test, they told me I couldn’t get a license until I’m sixteen.” “How old are you?” He asked, I answered, “twelve, going on thirteen.” He smiled, “Oh, I see. Well, drive home carefully and avoid driving too much until you get a license.” He said, then got in his patrol car and went on his way.
Let me explain; a couple weeks before I started driving the Opel Kadett, one of my sisters was driving it. A little figure showed up on the dashboard, so she drove the car several miles home to tell my Dad, “A little red oil lamp came on the dashboard. What does that mean?” Dad was livid; she blew the engine in the car.
My brothers, Peter and Danny, pushed the Opel into the garage, tucking it into the alcove. They jacked it up and put the car on cement blocks where they were going to try to pull the engine to repair it.
For all the tens of thousands of miles I put on that Opel; the hours and hours I had driven it all around the country; all the places I had been - that car never physically left the garage.
I sat behind the wheel of the Opel for hours. I did all the shifting and ran the gas and the brakes. I learned to manage the heat and defrosters too. Sometimes, I made engine noises and sometimes I didn’t. I learned to program the pre-set buttons, and often sang along with my favorite songs that were playing on the radio - WISM or WMAD. I would put the sun visors down in the late afternoon, when heading west, just like I had seen my dad do.
Being up on blocks, the front wheels turned freely. I taught myself to parallel park; how to use turn signals, the emergency brake and everything, I even practiced how to get it running when the engine didn’t want to start on cold winter days.
I don’t remember if Peter and Danny ever rebuilt the engine or if Dad sold it with the bad motor. I just know one day I went to the garage and the little station wagon was gone. All that remained in its place were four cement blacks. I was sad about that.
Although only within my imagination, everything I’ve told you in this story is true. It all happened and it came back to me so very clearly while standing in that driveway on Hegg Avenue, some forty-five years later. It was still so real within my mind, I couldn’t see what Fred had in that alcove. I could only see the dark blue, ‘68 Opel Kadett, two door station wagon sitting up on blocks. A short kid with scruffy brown hair and glasses was behind the wheel, stretching his neck upward to see over the hood, driving the car and having a ball!
I fought off the tears that welled in my eyes and told Fred, “On the backside of the garage there is a narrow addition.” “Yes, the shed. It’s still there.” He said. I told him, “My dad had that addition built to store our boat in the winter. We had an old red and white 17’ Lone Star aluminum boat with a 50 horse power Mercury outboard motor...”
I began thinking of all the hours I maneuvered that boat on the water after the Opel Kadett was gone. In calm waters and rough seas, I fearlessly sailed all around the world without leaving a safe place we called, “the boat house,” behind the garage on Hegg Avenue.